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Prairie chickens perform their yearly mating ritual at Hamden Slough NWR

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Travel north of Audubon about six miles during an early April morning and you may hear an unearthly noise. The low monotone grumbling sound that carries over the prairie in the small hours signifies the annual mating ritual of the Greater Prairie Chicken.

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The male chickens' attempt at attracting a mate by performing a ritualistic mating dance can be seen from Becker County Roads 13 or 106, but is better seen close up in Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge's "boomer blind." The blind gives bird watchers and nature lovers a close-up view of the birds as they perform, fight and coo.

According to Rebecca Esser, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the mating ritual usually starts in early March and reaches its peak in April. Hens then begin nesting in early May in an area with taller prairie grass.

The grouse family, to which the prairie chickens belong, is known for its display and animated mating rituals.

"Basically, they're sparring and fighting for the right to the female," Esser said. "They dance, they flair up their tail feathers, and their ear pinnaes stick straight up and they inflate their air sacks -- that's where the booming sound comes from -- and it's just a way to show dominance."

The males attack each other and jump and fight in mid-air in order to keep a spot in the middle of the "booming ground" or lek. Lesser or younger males keep to the outside and may challenge an older, more dominant male for a better spot.

"It's quite a display, Esser said. "And it's all to attract a female. Some of the females sit and watch and some of them want nothing to do with it."

The chickens do have sharp spurs on their feet, and some of the fighting and pecking can lead to injuries, but nothing life threatening, according to Esser.

"It's serious business for the chickens every spring," she said.

Soon, the prairie chicken lek will be visible on a website via a streaming webcam located at the boomer blind. A pair of solar panels brings electricity to the middle of the prairie to power the equipment.

"Ultimately, we're hoping to live stream the prairie chickens on a lek doing their mating ritual," Esser said.

Many people have a hand in coming up with and implementing the idea of a prairie chicken webcam, but the goal remains the same -- connecting more people with nature throughout the world.

"We're especially keying in and focusing in on bringing that type of thing into the classroom," Esser said. "So we're partnering up with schools as well and teaching them about prairie chickens and the prairie."

As man has plowed the prairie for farmland, the number of prairie chickens has been on the decline. Esser said the prairie chicken is listed as a "species of concern," but a hunting season -- just four days in the fall by application only -- remains in place.

In the peak of the mating season, one can see anywhere from 10 to 30 prairie chickens at the Hamden Slough location.

"It's pretty neat, and it's great that we have the opportunity with the lek there for people to see it in person."

To reserve a spot in the Hamden Slough Wildlife Refuge boomer blind, call the Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District at 218-847-4431.

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